July 25, 2022 12:30:22 pm
Until a few decades ago, the Kalbelias or snake charmers played pungi — an Indian folk music instrument — as they moved from one door to another, showing the snakes carefully kept in their bamboo hay baskets in return for alms and food grain. They mesmerised onlookers with their unique folk dance and songs, dressed in ornate black ensembles.
However, following the enactment of the Wildlife Act, Kalbelias disappeared from the streets as they were pushed out of their traditional profession of snake handling. “Hamari rozi-roti saanp se hi chalti thi. Aise hi bachchon ko bada kiya. Dheere dheere, forest walon ne yeh band karwa diya (We earned our livelihood through snakes. That’s how we fed our children. The forest department has shut down our profession),” said Meva Sapera, an internationally acclaimed Kalbelia singer, recounting the community’s rich history with snakes. Following the Kalbelia’s painful disassociation with the reptile, while many like Meva turned to their traditional dance and music to earn a livelihood, others found themselves struggling with odd jobs.
But, there is more to the community than their folk dances and songs — that are also recognised under UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritags of Humanity’ — their quilt-making tradition, constricted in practice within the confines of their deras, mostly in the villages under Bundi district in Rajasthan. To preserve this quilting tradition and provide them with better livelihood opportunities within their villages for the sustenance of their community and craft, an exhibition of quilts — titled ‘Quilting the Memories’ — made by the women of the Kalbelia community is on display till July 26, 2022, at Annexe Art Gallery, India International Centre.
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Talking about the exhibition, Dr Madan Meena, a practising visual artist and researcher working extensively with the rural, nomadic and tribal communities, said, “The exhibition is about this particular craft of quilting which is very specific to the Kalbelia community. Though many communities make quilts, their craft is different because it is a combination of three techniques – firstly, they do applique work or join the clothes; next, they do the simple running stitch which is to join two-three layers of clothes together, and last, they make different patterns over the quilt.” Currently, over 15-16 quilts are on display at the exhibition, made over a period of 1-1.5 years, he shared.
The ongoing exhibition has evolved out of the ‘Kalbelia Craft Revival Project’ which was conceived during Covid-19 when many Kalbelias returned to their native villages due to the lockdown. “This project started in Bundi after the first lockdown. During the Covid-19 lockdown, many women of the Kalbelia community, who used to beg in places like Noida, returned to Bundi. We decided to start working with their quilt tradition as it is unknown to the majority and has a lot of value. We started with just two women and it was supported by NIFT Jodhpur and IICD Jaipur,” Dr Meena, exhibition curator, told indianexpress.com.
Pallavi Singh, a student from IICD Jaipur, took this craft revival initiative as her diploma project under the guidance of Dr Meena, and worked extensively with these artisans of the community. “I travelled to Bundi and nearby villages and found Kalbelia women who are good at quilt-making and can do fine work. They, then, showed us thee quilts that they made for themselves. Then, we asked them to make some for us and paid them on a per-day basis. In Bundi, the per-day charge for labour is Rs 250. Since convincing them to work for us was really difficult, Dr Meena suggested paying them Rs 300 to make the work seem attractive,” she said.
Soon after the positive response from the community, Kota Heritage Society and Mumbai-based jewellery designer Gitanjali Gondhale raised funds to support these women and the project took shape. Singh added, “Once I got an understanding of how much time it takes for them to complete a quilt, we asked them to make more pieces. We didn’t do any design intervention so that the originality of their craft doesn’t get lost. We also asked them to make smaller pieces including pillow covers, mobile pouches, small bags, table runners, etc.”
For Kalbelias, despite quilting never being the source of their livelihood, it has always been the very essence of their traditional identity as a nomadic tribe. When they used to live in make-shift tents called dera and move seasonally, these handwoven quilts became an important article required to sleep on the ground wherever they camped. They also stood as a matter of pride and were spread out to welcome guests. They are memories of their nomadism, traditions, challenges and experiences.
Meera Bai, a 29-year-old Kalbelia woman engaged in quilting in Bundi, said, “We have to give these quilts to our daughters during their weddings. On special occasions, too, we gift these quilts. They were never sold” adding that she learnt the craft from her elder sister at the age of 10. “Quilting is part of our community for as long as one can remember,” she told indianexpress.com.
Agreed Meva and shared, “If we don’t give the quilt during our daughters’ wedding, people mock us. It is an integral part of the community.” “When there’s a division of property between sons, the quilts are also equally divided,” Dr Meena added.
Mewa, who possesses a natural talent for singing Kalbelia folk songs, has performed all over the world with well-known dancer Gulabo Sapera. However, after the Covid-19 lockdown, she failed to find an opportunity to perform and struggled to support her family. Now, Meva is a valued member of the project and has been teaching quilt-making within her community.
“Meva didn’t have any work to support herself. So, we gave her the same quilt-making work and she has also made quilts for us,” Singh said, sharing how the project is helping such retired Kalbelia women dancers and singers apart from reviving this wonderful tradition of Gudari making.
“Not everybody from the community dances or sings. Those like me, who did, don’t get offers anymore. There’s an acute shortage of food and money. If this craft grows further, women and young girls will get some money to sustain their families,” Mewa said.
Any art stands as a testament to the time, culture and geography of the artisans. As such, the aesthetics of the Kalbelia quilts have been shaped by the experiences and traditions of the community. One can find references from the texture of snake scales in the embroidered patterns of the quilt.
“Once the motifs on the quilt are created, their movement resembles that of a snake. The threads crawl on the fabric just like a snake does on the floor,” Singh said, explaining the technique which she refers to as “an amalgamation of embroidery and quilting”.
The technique employed to create these quilts is called ‘doda dora‘ because after stitching layers of clothes together, the surface is embroidered with different patterns in which the needle passes angularly (called doda in vernacular language) through the stitched thread. Each quilt — made with a combination of applique work, quilting and embroidery — takes between two to three months to complete. The more intricate ones may require up to six months, they shared.
For the people behind the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, the idea is to spread awareness about this art and ensure sustained livelihoods for these women of the community. “While we are working on this for the past two years, to make it sustainable, we want people to know about this craft and buy these quilts. Only then will we be able to pay these artisans,” Singh said.
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